Articles Posted in Expert Testimony

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fire.jpgIn the early morning hours of December 23, 1991, a fire quickly spread through the Texas home of Cameron Todd Willingham and Stacy Kuykendall. Kuykendall had already left the house to run errands. Willingham was able to escape moments before flames completely engulfed the house. Their three daughters did not survive. The fire was ruled an arson and Willingham was tried for murder and sentenced to the death penalty in August 1992. He was executed February 17, 2004. Willingham maintained he was innocent and now his family is seeking a posthumous pardon.Surviving relatives Eugenia Willingham and Patricia Willingham Cox are petitioning Texas to exonerate Willingham based on new evidence and new scientific procedures that have developed since 2004. At the trial, the Willingham’s conviction was based largely on the testimonies of the fire investigators and Willingham’s cellmate. Jailhouse informant Johnny Webb stated that Willingham admitted that he had set the fire on purpose. Webb was subsequently released from prison early. Years later, Webb recanted his testimony and declared that Willingham was innocent. Assistant Fire Chief Fogg and Fire Marshall Vasquez testified that the fire was started by an accelerant. But, in the trial, both men acknowledged that the fire could have been caused by other means than accelerants.

Since the time of the trial, new science has emerged that refutes the testimonies of the police investigators. Studies and reports by leading arson experts have cast serious doubts on the validity of the evidence used to convict Willingham. In 2004, independent expert Gerald Hurst reviewed the evidence and determined that faulty forensic evidence was used. An expert panel of five arson scientists stated that the indicators used by the State’s experts have been proven to be scientifically invalid. In 2009 the State of Texas ordered that Willingham’s case be re-examined. In that same year, a report issued by Dr. Craig Beyler, stated that “a finding of arson could not be sustained”. Dr. Beyler discredited the testimony from a fire marshal at Willingham’s trial stating that the testimony was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics”. In addition, the Texas Forensic Science Commission stated in 2011 that there is a lack of science education amongst fire investigators.
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overton.jpgIn the first part of our Hannah Overton blog, we reviewed the facts of her 2007 capital murder trial and the procedural aspects of the case that placed her back in court. She was found guilty by omission in the poisoning death of 4-year-old Andrew Burd and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

While it is true that Overton was tried in a court of law by her peers, there is a question of whether a miscarriage of justice occurred. In February of this year the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided that a hearing needed to be held to determine if Overton got a fair trial. On Monday, April 23, an evidentiary hearing began to determine if there is enough evidence to grant Overton a new trial, to allow her to go free, or if the decision stands. Her criminal defense lawyers are arguing key points: the prosecutors failed to turn over favorable evidence to the defense, she had ineffective counsel during the trial and that she was not convicted on reliable science. Judge Jose Longoria of the 214th State District heard statements for six days and now has one month to send his recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

There were many people who were called to testify during the hearing. Attorney David Jones told the court that he was sorry for the way he handled the original trial. During questioning in the hearing he broke down in tears and stated that there was more that he could have done for his client. Jones stated that he did not review a videotaped deposition of the world’s leading expert on sodium intoxication before the defense decided not to use the video before the jury. He said that this video proves that Hannah was innocent.

Former lead prosecutor Sandra Eastwood admitted that she had been taking diet pills and was drinking alcoholic during the trial. She testified that she was an alcoholic. During the hearing she said that she cannot recall certain details of the trial, but she was adamant that she did not withhold evidence. Eastwood was fired in April 2010 from the district attorney’s office on charges unrelated to the Overton trial. In addition, Anna Jimenez, who was appointed as District Attorney of Nueces County after the Overton trial and who sat second chair during the trial, claimed that Overton should not have been tried for capital murder and she recounted how she repeatedly went to her bosses during the trial to complain of Eastwood’s unethical behavior.

Dr. Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County Medical Examiner, also took the stand last week. Fernandez had been the person who ruled the death a homicide. He has said that he will review any and all new evidence, and may change the cause of death if it is warranted.
Local pediatrician Dr. Edgar Cortes saw Andrew twice in the months before Andrew’s death. He testified that he had told Eastwood that he believed the boy’s death was an accident. He also had information that this child was not a normal child and that he had cognitive delays and other problems. The state during the trial painted young Andrew as a normal, healthy child.
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Arguments at the United States Supreme Court continued on December 6, 2011, as the justices heard oral arguments for the case of Sandy Williams, Petitioner v. Illinois Docket (#10-8505).

This is a case that pertains to the Sixth Amendment – specially the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. The Sixth Amendment states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” The Confrontation Clause deals with the phrase “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” In other words, a person who is on trial has the right to see the witnesses who are offering testimonial evidence against them and they have the right to cross-exam the witnesses during the trial. (Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the right to confrontation apply to the states and not just the federal government. The right only applies to criminal prosecutions, not civil cases or other proceedings.)

In this particular case, a DNA report was prepared by a third party, private lab. During the trial, the actual report was not admitted and none of the lab analysts who conducted the tests ever testified. Instead, an Illinois State Police forensic analyst was called to testify. This expert was never involved with nor observed the actual tests, and therefore had no knowledge of the methods used to obtain the results.
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